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The Cornice

A moment of decision on McGinnis Peak.

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The essence of ridge climbing, on terrain like what the author encountered on Mount McGinnis. Matt Van Enkevort is shown high on D2, a 10,200-foot peak on the crest of the Hayes Range divide, Alaska. Photo by Roman Dial.
The essence of ridge climbing, on terrain like what the author encountered on Mount McGinnis. Matt Van Enkevort is shown high on D2, a 10,200-foot peak on the crest of the Hayes Range divide, Alaska. Photo: Roman Dial

In 1985, I flew into Alaska’s Hayes Range to climb McGinnis Peak with a mercurial mountaineer named Chuck Comstock. Stocky, blond and belligerent, Chuck was tough, brutally tough, the toughest guy I would ever know across a lifetime of adventurous partners.

We hadn’t hit it off right away. On our first major expedition, Chuck warned me during an argument not to turn my back, or—as he drawled in his Iowa country-boy accent—“I might sink an ice axe in the back of your head, Romin Dahl.”

Later, as housemates in Fairbanks, where he worked construction, we came to blows over something petty. Cornered, Comstock landed a punch to my jaw. I replied by pummeling his belly, then throwing him on a table.

Nevertheless, we partnered up for what I’d named Cutthroat Couloir on McGinnis (11,400 feet), arriving in March when it was well-frozen and safe from rockfall. The climb to the top took three difficult days, including my hardest lead ever on ice, a pitch we named “Difference of Opinion.” Chuck’s lead on another pitch, “Mixed Feelings,” was even harder. After those pitches of steep rock veneered in thin, hollow ice, we finished the couloir and climbed a snowy ridge to the top.

We tented on the summit our third night. Below us the Hayes Range went dark as the sky turned indigo. Alaska’s winter chill sent the temperature to 30 below. Long before dawn, we woke and brewed up.

We had just put up one of the hardest climbs in the Hayes Range. Hubris sent us down the knife-edged southeast ridge like happy cowboys on bare-backed ponies. Then we arrived at a long stretch of cornices.

Five years before McGinnis, on a peak known as Ten Nine Ten in the Alaska Range, my friend Carl Tobin had instructed me in the art of negotiating corniced ridges: “Roman, if I break a cornice, jump off the other side, O.K.?” The idea that a rope stretched over the ridge between us would keep us both from falling to the glaciers below had seemed iffy at best.

At the end of a stressful two-hour lead along McGinnis’ gargoyled ridge, I slithered into an alpine chimney and down into a big, iced-up crack splitting a craggy spire. Tied together with twin ropes, we had reached the col below the next peak. It was a good place to pull Chuck in on belay. Crisp blue shadows rimmed in tangerine stretched across the ridgeline. The sun would drop soon, sending temperatures to minus-30 again. The wind picked up.

Beyond the col, cornices clung to bare rocks like a white gyrfalcon’s talons to a black fox’s carcass. There was no place to camp here and no time before dark to maneuver through the tortured ridgecrest to come.

Tense and angry when Chuck arrived, I dumped my stress on him.

“Chuck! There’s no place to camp! Why didn’t you say something earlier, when you were leading? It’s your fault we’re out of options!” I yelled.

“Fine, Romin Dahl,” he said quietly, his jaw stiff from the cold. “Let’s just split right here. I got a stove and a cookpot, you got a stove and a cookpot. We both got shovels. Just take your rope and give me mine and we’ll go our separate ways.”

Chuck untied, dropping the tail at my feet.

I stared at the naked end of rope.

“Chuck …Look, I was wrong …. You were right. It’s my fault,” I stammered. “I should have said something back there. Maybe we can camp on this col …. Chuck, please. Tie back into the rope.”

He looked away and spat a rat turd of Copenhagen into clean snow.

“Really. Chuck, I mean it …. I’m sorry. It’s going to be fucking cold soon. Chuck, man, please. Tie back in.”

The author. Photo: Roman Dial.

His blue eyes squinted through blond lashes crusted in frost, his look like a runaway dog who’s unsure if he should return to his master. Reluctantly he re-tied. The moment passed and Chuck led off. He shuffled through the snow, the troll he could sometimes be, deliberate and tenacious.

The twin lines paid out as he plowed a trough along the ridgeline, the broadest it had been since the summit. Half a rope length away, he pushed a picket into the snow as protection, then probed the ridge with his ice axe, and in one fluid motion—dropped from sight.

The rope yanked at my comprehension, reminding me of Carl’s words: Jump! In an instant I leaped free of the ridge, not thinking, just acting: a reflex, a roll of the dice, a flight into space, then cartwheels and tumbles across the soft, snowy slope below, everything passing in a slow-motion blur, a kaleidoscope of blue sky and white snow. Even today, 35 years on, I remember the calmness, an almost out-of-body experience before an uncertain, imminent ending. Relaxed, without pain or even fear during a fall that felt very far, I wondered if I might die, like my friend Peter MacKeith had on Old Snowy, or if not, about how I might be hurt, like other friends who’d fallen and survived, only to suffer in agony with compound fractures of arms and legs, days away from help. I found myself praying: Dear God, don’t break any bones. If you must, just kill me instead.

Eventually I came to a bouncing, yo-yo-like stop, hanging from the end of the rope. Dangling in the soft rime and sunshine, I took stock—tools, crampons, pack, all intact, and me uninjured—Where’s my helmet? I looked down. Accelerating for the glacier at the base of McGinnis was an orange dot. If the rope had broken, that would be me.

The rope—stretched tight over the ridge—had saved me. What about Chuck? With jugs on the rope, I pulled my way to the ridge crest while wondering, Is the sturdy anchor on the other side Chuck’s dead body? On top, the rope sliced deeply into snow the cornice had left behind. A 30-foot chunk of the ridgeline—five feet thick and 15 feet wide—had broken free and shoved Chuck into a steep, dark couloir. Hoping to see Chuck alive, I peered down the nasty gash and spied a figure inching upwards with tangled coils of rope hanging below.

“Chuck!” I called down. “You all right?”

“Yeah!” he yelled back. “I hurt my hand! But I’m O.K.!”

“Hold on, Chuck! I’ll come down to you! Put in a screw!”

I pounded a picket into the hard-packed snow left behind by the cornice, then rappelled to him. He looked all right: no blood, no deformities.

“Good god, Chuck. What happened?”

“Well, Romin Dahl,” he drawled, more shaken than I’d ever seen him. “There was this weird hole in the snow and I bent over to look inside. I thought maybe we could camp in it, dig a cozy little snow cave. And then I was fallin’ and all this snow was pushin’ down so hard on me I thought the rope would break! And when it stopped—well, there I was.”

We pounded pins between granite blocks, left screws in black ice, stuffed chocks in chossy cracks: anchors for a thousand feet of raps leading to snow enough for a shallow cave. It was crowded inside but we felt safe and lucky to be alive. In the morning we dropped another thousand feet, rappelling off flukes and pickets, down-climbing to the glacier and staggering back to camp.

At the time, I loved alpinism like a junkie loves a fix, but after McGinnis I knew to quit cold-turkey. It seemed far better to be an alpine has-been at 25 than a dead legend at 30.

While I quit alpine climbing, I didn’t quit Chuck. How could I? Toting a bottle of frozen whisky, we skied across the Brooks Range during a record-breaking cold snap. We invented glacier ski-racing across the Chugach. In the Wrangells, Chuck, Carl and I climbed big-ice waterfalls. One ended in a 90-foot pillar, 60 feet standing free. Perched on the icicle, Chuck called down: “This thing’s makin’ all kinds a’ noises. It’s talkin’ to me.” Asked what it was saying, he replied, “It’s tellin’ me to get down.” Moments after he backed off, it collapsed.

Chuck’s epics from Valdez to the Arctic could fill this page each month for a year. He made deep-winter attempts: solo on Denali, and one with Dan McCoy on Sanford’s Ulu Ridge, where a storm blew away their floorless tent at 12,000 feet in February, leaving them with a 30-mile struggle to the road and no shelter, no stove, no water. The same winter he contracted pancreatitis from drinking too much, then got busted with 20 hits of acid. None of that stopped him but all of it killed him, in 2000, before he’d turned 40. Friends found him in his trailer outside Valdez.

Chuck asked me to go climbing up until the last time I saw him. I was in Florida at a scientific conference when my wife called to say he had died. An era had ended.

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 265 (September 2020).

Roman Dial lives in Anchorage, Alaska. The above is adapted by permission from The Adventurer’s Son, A Memoir by Roman Dial (William Morrow/ Harper Collins Publishers, February 18, 2020).